By Stacey Dresner
NORTHAMPTON – For the past two years at Lander-Grinspoon Academy, most of what would normally be done by the Head of School was handled by a group of dedicated board members and parents, headed by chair Lou Davis.
In June, they all sighed a breath of relief when Ellen Frank took over as executive director of the Northampton Jewish day school.
“Ellen’s first day at the school couldn’t have come soon enough!” Davis said. “Frankly, having Ellen step in felt like a being thrown a life preserver. She immediately inspired confidence in the entire leadership team here by adroitly coming right up to speed in understanding our school, our community, our donors and our systems, and providing support and guidance right out of the gate. As you can imagine, having a small, all-volunteer force run the school’s strategic and operational functions for over two years resulted in a lot of burnout. Having Ellen take the helm infused a renewed sense of vitality in both our lay and professional executive leadership teams and the community as a whole.”
Frank, who lives in Northampton with her husband Bill Gemmell and her sons, Matthew, a freshman at Brown, Ari, a 10th grader at Northampton High School and Isaac, a 6th grader at JFK Middle School, came to LGA from the Williston-Northampton School, where she had worked for nine years in first fundraising, then donor relations.
Born and raised in New York City on the Upper East Side, Frank has lived in the Upper Pioneer Valley for the past 15 years. “We were looking for a vibrant Jewish community, and looking for a college town because of the diversity, the culture, the schools, and Northampton quickly came out as the frontrunner,” she said.
Growing up in New York, her family had belonged to the Reform Temple Israel on 75th St. where she had her bat mitzvah. “But I kind of walked away from it for a while,” she said.
She attended Bennington College for two years, then went to study abroad in Spain during her junior year and stayed. “I think I terrified my parents when I said, ‘I’m not coming home yet,’” she recalled. “I loved the place and ended up staying there a few years. I never thought of myself as a linear person – four years of this and four years of that – most of my life has had a few interesting detours along the way.”
It was while living in Spain that Frank says she experienced anti-Semitism for the first time.
In 1992, King Juan Carlos met with Israel President Chaim Herzog and members of the Spanish-Jewish community during a ceremony marking the 500th anniversary of the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from the country. While Sephardic Jews were invited to seek Spanish citizenship, Spain did not actually come out and apologize for expelling the Jews.
“I had already been living there for several years at that point, and it was astonishing to me – it was like somebody had kicked me in the chest – that ‘Oh, now you are allowed to be here’? It was really an awakening.”
She wound up coming back to New York and finished up her degree in Spanish at NYU.
“That was when I began really exploring Judaism on my own for the first time, and saying this is something I am looking for,” she said. “I looked around at different synagogues and as a young adult joined The Central Synagogue, a Reform congregation on the Upper East Side. At the time, they had a group called the Central Issues Group, specifically geared towards kids just out of college and in their early 20s – the idea being that there is this gap of time when kids that age are kind of unaffiliated, but that once they were looking to get married and start a family they would join a synagogue. So this was a wonderful bridge for them. I became involved with that group – met my first husband and co-chaired it for a year.”
Professionally, she had gone into international banking working for Republic National Bank, a company owned by the Safra Group. Banking, she said, may have been in her blood – her grandfather was chairman of the board of Republic National Bank and she can remember being taken for lunch in its boardroom.
She entered the firm’s management-training program and worked with clients in Latin America. Six years later she was an assistant vice president but left to become as stay-at-home mother when her second son was born. She then ended up in Northampton and happily stayed home to raise her children, which by then included a third son.
When she decided to go back to work 10 years ago, her mother, who is director of alumni relations at the Dalton School in New York City, piqued her interest in development.
“There is no international correspondent banking in this area, it is either in New York or Miami in this country, so I started to look at what could I do that would bring together my skill set,” Frank said. “It was interesting that my mom being alumni relations sort of played into that because so much of development involves constituent relations in some way, shape or form. And that is what I had been doing at the bank, relationship management. I started looking at development and wound up taking a job at the Williston Northampton School.”
Meanwhile at LGA, Bill Zarch, Head of School, left in June 2012 to take a job in Baltimore. Linda Minoff, now executive director of the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts, came in for a year and “was really instrumental in solving some budget issues that we had and setting the school on a much more firm financial footing,” Frank said.
Earlier this year Frank says she decided “it was time for new challenges” and after finding out about the open position at LGA from a former neighbor, she applied, interviewed and was named executive director, a position funded by a grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.
“Part of my mandate has been to really take back what really was a professional job from a board that handled the finance, the operations, the fundraising in a hands-on, loving and thoughtful way, but which is very appreciative of being given a break,” she said.
She said that her arrival has “really allowed the board to go back up to that 30,000-foot view of things, which is exactly where they should be particularly, now having just celebrated our Chai year. Now actually in our 20th year and looking forward to our next 20 years – we need to think about how we want to position ourselves in the Valley, what are the strengths of our school, and how do we communicate that? It is such perfect timing for the board to be able to pull back and look at things from that vantage point and let me get into the nuts and bolts and the daily running of the school from an operational standpoint.”
She said she has also taken back the development piece – with the aid of some board volunteers.
“That is meant to be 80 percent of my time with an eye to really increasing broad-based community support of this lovely school so that we can continue to do the things everybody has been doing for the past 20 years.”
“I really can’t say enough good things about Ellen and the job she’s doing for LGA,” Davis said. “She is the consummate professional who cares profoundly about our school and our community and doing everything she can to move us forward both strategically and operationally. She’s been deeply involved in our re-envisioning work and is helping us to look to the future to bolster our position as a premier and sustainable Jewish academic institution in the Upper Valley. We feel so lucky to have her!”